First bus crash survivors back in Belgium

The first survivors of a bus crash that shocked Belgium returned to a national day of mourning Friday, after grieving parents laid flowers at the Swiss Alps tunnel site where 22 school children

Eight pre-teens hurt in the horrific road accident that also claimed six adult lives, landed at Melsbroek military airport near Brussels, according to a Swiss hospital official, before speeding off with relieved loved ones accompanied by a police escort.

The first bodies of the victims — mainly Belgian and Dutch 11- and 12-year-olds who had spent a week on Switzerland’s ski slopes — will come home later on Friday.

“The operation of repatriating the bodies will begin at 7.30am (0630 GMT) at the Sion airport,” the Swiss police said in a statement, adding that the country’s president and other senior government officials will attend.

“Honours will be paid to the victims of this dramatic accident,” it said.

Swiss police commander Christian Varone said 19 of the 28 bodies had been identified.

A photographer said no ambulances were in view when a Belgian military plane landed shortly after midnight.

Grieving Belgians held an emotional evening vigil late Thursday as classmates and neighbours turned out to pray for the dead in Lommel, a sleepy town of 33,000 where many of the victims came from.

Police said 2,500 people congregated around a Catholic service.

“With this candle, I am thinking of you,” a church worker said for each of the 24 names read out.

The town’s grief set the tone for a minute’s silence across Belgium due at 11am, with flags flown at half-mast and drivers of buses, metros and trains asked to switch off their engines as a mark of respect.

Back in Switzerland, grieving parents laid flowers Thursday at the crash site as investigators sought to unravel the cause of the tragedy.

As some relatives visited the morgue holding the bodies of the 28 victims, news reports said the bus driver had tried to play a DVD shortly before the crash, suggesting a “moment of distraction” may be to blame.

This claim was rejected by the man’s employer and dismissed as speculation by Swiss police.

The tunnel where the coach crashed into a wall remained closed to the public and media were kept at a distance as family members arrived.

Forty-six children and four teachers from two Belgian schools were returning home from a skiing holiday late Tuesday when their coach slammed into a concrete wall in the motorway tunnel in southern Switzerland.

Twenty-two of the dead were from Belgium while the other six fatalities were from the Netherlands.

Three of the injured children remained in critical condition, a Swiss hospital spokeswoman said, and could not be moved.

The body of the driver was also expected to remain as “health analyses have to be carried out” to check if he was suffering from an illness that could have caused the accident.

After police said they did not believe the driver had been speeding, Swiss authorities said there would be a rethink about safety designs in the 2.5-kilometre tunnel.

It is believed that the coach clipped a kerb before it slammed into the wall of a rectangular emergency stop area.

A 100 kilometre per hour speed limit was also questioned by the press.

While Switzerland pondered how the tragedy had occurred, Belgium’s Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo told his country’s parliament: “The whole country weeps for its children.”

Classmates of the dead wept in the schoolyard as Lommel faced up to the trauma.

Tearful children accompanied by tense parents came bearing flowers, toys, drawings, candles and words of comfort.

“No more future, no more beautiful children’s dreams, just your unbearable and endless pain: we share it with you,” said a message left among piles of flowers at the school entrance.

The toll at this primary school of around 200 children, whose name means “the little matchstick” in Dutch, was particularly high, apparently because this group was seated at the front of the bus when it smashed into the tunnel wall.

“This is a small town where nothing ever happens and everybody knows everybody else,” said 51-year-old local Peter Flament.

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Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert

Due to the heavy snowfall in recent days and more expected until the weekend, an avalanche warning is issued for Switzerland’s southern canton of Valais.

Weather warning: Part of Swiss Alps placed on high avalanche alert
Avalanche warnings should be taken very seriously. Photo by AFP

Valais authorities said the current avalanche risk level is between 4 and 5, meaning ‘high’ to ‘extreme’.

The population is urged to stay at home. When out, they should obey the signs and especially stay away from the avalanche corridors, officials warned.

Significant amounts of snow have fallen in the area in recent days, dumping 1 metre of snow above the altitude of 2,000 metres in the upper part of the canton. Between 30 and 40 centimetres are still expected. 

The highest risk of avalanches is in the Goms valley, the Zermatt valley, as well as the entire right bank of the Rhône. 

Some particularly threatened areas could even be evacuated, authorities said.

People planning to go skiing in Valais over the next few days should check snow conditions and avalanche warnings in place, especially as many roads, mainly in Upper Valais, are cut off, and a number of villages in the Goms Valley, Lötschental and the Zermatt region are no longer accessible by road or train. 

The Avalanche Bulletin is a good source of information not just for Valais, but for all of Switzerland’s mountain regions.

READ MORE: Is the pandemic to blame for Switzerland's spate of avalanche deaths? 

Avalanches have been particularly deadly in Switzerland this winter, having claimed 14 lives so far — well above the average yearly figure of eight people.

Avalanches have caused casualties in the mountains of Valais, Vaud, Graubünden, Obwalden and Schwyz. 

With many people concerned about the potential for contracting coronavirus on the slopes, the idea of skiing off piste has become more attractive. 

But this practice can trigger massive avalanches, so it is crucial to stay away from unsecured slopes.

READ MORE: Large crowds on Swiss ski slopes spark concern over coronavirus spread